The NRL’s no-fault stand-down policy was back in the news last weekend as Jack de Belin’s case to hear his sexual assault trial was postponed until November, but the news isn’t as bad for the Dragons as it might appear on the surface.
It means that, by the time it rolls around, De Belin will be out of contract and will not have played a single game for two years.
If he is found not guilty, as he has pleaded, then it’s anyone’s guess whether his career will survive, but it’s time to start moving on from that news, and look ahead to the season on the field.
No, this isn’t an article about the NRL’s policy, or about what may or may not have happened, or even about Australia’s legal system and why a case is going to be heard nearly two years after it was first reported.
I’m sick and tired of talking about off-field antics in the NRL. It feels like it’s all we have done for about two years. From court cases to national anthems and the administration who run the game, it’s not why we talk about the sport.
We talk about the game because of what’s happening on the field, and there is no doubting the loss of Jack de Belin for another full season is going to have a big impact one way or another on the men from Kogarah.
Finishing 15th last year, it was the worst season in the history of the joint venture, and what’s worse, it came after most pre-season predictions were talking up the club as one that should be playing in September.
In the end, they had given up on the season by the time a couple of months had been completed, slumping to embarrassing loss after embarrassing loss.
Injuries – such as the one to Gareth Widdop – played their part, but this was a club in turmoil for much of the season, mainly due to the unexpected stand-down of their star lock forward.
As the story goes, the day after the federal court upheld the NRL’s no-fault stand-down policy, the Dragons were all but ready to boycott their game in Mudgee against the Knights, which they went on to lose 45-12.
From that day, the Red V would lose ten of their last 14, with half of their remaining wins coming against the hapless Titans, and some of the darkest days in the club’s history being put up, with a 42-12 pasting at the hands of the Tigers in Round 24 right up there.
There is no putting it lightly: 2019 was a shambles for the Dragons. An inexperienced coach in Paul McGregor – who has shown he has no idea how to manage a team across the season – plus injuries, an inexperienced back line and players clearly with their mind elsewhere meant the season was only going to finish one way.
In fact, the only reason McGregor’s side didn’t pick up their first wooden spoon was because of how bleedingly poor the Titans were.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism in 2020 though, and while a big win over the Knights last week won’t put minds at ease among the club’s passionate fans, a strong performance in the Charity Shield tomorrow evening in Mudgee against South Sydney would.
The biggest reason the Dragons can succeed this year where they failed last year is the fact they are aware of what will happen before the season gets underway this time around.
Players, coaches and club officials can know from the outset that Jack de Belin cannot be part of their plans, and the players also have time to adjust to him not being there.
What’s more, there is simply no excuse for a talented playing group to not move past this issue in 2020, having had a full off-season to process the information.
On paper, the Dragons are a mile better than where they finished last year, and must prove it this year, no matter the off-field circumstances.
What the Red V have also lacked for some years is a good coach. Not since the days of Wayne Bennett have they had a man who can take charge of the situation and lead the side.
They have had plenty of good starts before fading away, but last year, it was more like starting games well and then fading away as one loss morphed into the next.
Experience and toughness in the coaching ranks simply hasn’t been there, but Shane Flanagan joins the club in an assistant capacity this campaign. He has his black marks from a tumultuous time spent at Cronulla, but also found a way to have his side competitive, no matter what incident was in the process of happening off-field.
Flanagan should bring that level of professionalism to the Saints, while his track record in dealing with younger players is also superb, whereas McGregor has had a lot of talented juniors collapse under him – think Matt Dufty, Jai Field, Reece Robson and Luciano Leilua just to name a few.
The final and most compelling reason is their increased depth at lock. While the plans to have the now-injured Cameron McInnes spend some time there are absurd, the experience of Trent Merrin, and youth of Blake Lawrie and Jackson Ford, should bring the club plenty in the 13 jersey.
Again, they haven’t excelled to this point, but the arrival of Flanagan should be a big boost to their respective careers, while pre-season photos show Merrin in as good a shape as he has ever been.
Merrin’s role in providing offloads and getting games off to good starts will be pivotal, and it’s something the Dragons need to see in the Charity Shield against Liam Knight.
Lock is such an important position in the modern game – almost a third half in a prop’s body – so the role of Merrin, Ford and Lawrie this year in taking over from one of the best, in a position that was never properly filled last year for the Red V, will be crucial.
The Charity Shield tomorrow isn’t the be all and end all, and the Dragons may not be in the popular consensus of a top eight (or mine, frankly).
But realistically, they are a better side than shown, and there is no chance they can blame a poor 2020 season on the loss of their lock.